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Fewer college football programs are leaving campus for training camps even in portal era

Wisconsin offensive lineman Trey Wedig’s challenges in his first week of preseason camp weren’t limited to creating running room and protecting his quarterback.
Posted at 11:15 AM, Aug 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-16 11:15:47-04

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin offensive lineman Trey Wedig’s challenges in his first week of preseason camp weren’t limited to creating running room and protecting his quarterback.

The Badgers’ dormitory accommodations at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville also meant the 6-foot-7 Wedig had to figure out how to sleep comfortably in a twin XL-sized bed.

“My feet are hanging off or hitting that wooden frame,” Wedig said. “I sleep diagonally so I don’t hit that wooden frame."

The Badgers spent a week working out in Platteville, about 70 miles from Wisconsin’s Madison campus. New Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell got the idea to train out of town from his coaching tenure at Cincinnati, which is spending a 25th straight year practicing about 30 miles from campus at Higher Ground Conference & Retreat Center in West Harrison, Indiana.

Schools that train out of town rave about how isolating themselves from campus builds camaraderie that can carry a team through the grind of a season. Fickell said after his team’s final practice in Platteville that “there’s no doubt” he’d want to make this trip again.

“They really enjoyed it,” Fickell said. “They’ve asked several times about, ‘Can we stay here for another week?’ … I’m the same way. If we could stay here another week, I’d love it.”

Wisconsin and Cincinnati are among a shrinking number of programs training off campus.

Of the 93 Football Bowl Subdivision programs that responded to an Associated Press survey, only Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Arizona State and Florida State are holding portions of training camp outside the city in which their campus is located and having at least one overnight stay. Ten years ago, 14 different schools spent at least part of the preseason working out of town.

That list of 14 schools included Northwestern, which has permanently discontinued its training camp in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which had been an annual tradition since 1992. Some of the hazing allegations that led to the firing of Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and the filing of at least a dozen lawsuits stem from those Kenosha camps.

Brian Crow, who has researched hazing while chairing the department of sport management, hospitality and tourism at Slippery Rock University, says it’s encouraging to see fewer teams leaving campus for preseason workouts.

“I believe there is a correlation to more bad behavior the further from campus they are,” Crow said.

Elizabeth Allan, a University of Maine professor of higher education, conducted a 2018 study with colleague Mary Madden in which 57.1% of students reported hazing was most likely to happen off campus.

Allan noted her survey wasn’t limited to athletes and didn’t collect data specifically focusing on off-campus training sites like the one in Kenosha, so it couldn’t determine whether there was any indication these types of camps increased the risk of hazing.

“I don’t think that just having a preseason football camp off campus will cause hazing,” said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and the author of “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation.” “But in groups that already have hazing as part of their rituals or traditions, it is very likely they will occur in those kinds of situations.”

Lipkins suggested that teams going off campus for preseason workouts should be extra vigilant in making sure there’s enough supervision to avoid hazing incidents. Wedig said Fickell warned Wisconsin’s players against hazing by telling them, “We’re not doing that,” as soon as the Northwestern reports surfaced.

“He specifically told us, ‘Stay away from any of that stuff. We’re not even going to give it a gray area,’" Wedig said.

Holding training camps away from campus has been part of college football lore ever since Paul “Bear” Bryant subjected Texas A&M's players to practices in 100-degree temperatures without water breaks way back in 1954, a trip that was chronicled in the book and movie titled “The Junction Boys.”

Schools that train off campus now say it’s a way to build chemistry, something particularly important in the age of the transfer portal.

Wisconsin brought in 17 transfers this offseason. There are 15 incoming transfers at Florida State, which is spending part of its training camp at the University of North Florida’s Jacksonville campus for a third straight year.

“We’re just trying to get better and find different ways to learn about all the new coaches and the new players,” said Cincinnati quarterback Emory Jones, who previously played at Florida and Arizona State. “It’s fun.”

New Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham has the Sun Devils reigniting a program tradition by working out three days at Camp Tontozona in Payson, Arizona. Arizona State started visiting Camp Tontozona in 1959 during Frank Kush’s coaching tenure, but this year marks the Sun Devils’ first visit since 2019.

Dillingham said Arizona State’s schedule includes time for players simply to interact with one another.

“And they’re going to have to do it without a cell phone,” Dillingham said. “They’re going to have to do it without a television, without a video game. They’re going to do it with a deck of cards. They’re going to do it with a Jenga set. They’re going to do it with dice. And they’re going to have to hang out and talk to each other and build relationships.”

Crow said he believes those types of team-building activities can be done without leaving campus.

“I would say that, particularly in FBS schools, you have multimillion dollar facilities on campus that were built for this purpose,” Crow said. “Utilize those.”

That’s what Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi decided.

Narduzzi was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator from 2004-06 and remembers all those nights he spent at Higher Ground. He doesn’t see a need for his Pittsburgh teams to have a similar experience.

“We’re not looking for day camps. We want to try to win football games," he said.

Narduzzi instead has his players stay at a hotel down the street from campus once classes are out rather than heading out of town.

LSU coach Brian Kelly took his Cincinnati teams to Higher Ground and had some of his Notre Dame squads train at Culver, Indiana. Kelly says taking teams out of town builds camaraderie and breaks up the monotony for players who have been on campus all summer.

The trick is to find an ideal site close enough to campus to make this feasible. Kelly hasn’t taken his LSU teams out of town for workouts.

“We’d have to find a home run somewhere else,” Kelly said. “It can’t be this rustic – the old Junction Boys kind of setup. Those days are over. You really have to provide them with really good facilities.”

The spartan accommodations of years past are over. Wisconsin and Cincinnati players and coaches raved over the food provided by their host sites.

“They really feed you a lot,” Cincinnati coach Scott Satterfield said before heading to Higher Ground. “Guys are saying they actually gained weight out there for a couple weeks.”

And as for the lodging, Wisconsin’s players discovered sleeping in those small beds isn’t particularly difficult after a long day of practice.

“When you’re going to bed, sometimes you’re so tired, you don’t even really think about it,” Wisconsin guard Michael Furtney said.

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